Modest Mussorgsky

Russian composer Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky is best known for the opera BORIS GODUNOV. Folk songs he heard as a child inspired him to improvise at the piano even before his mother started teaching him. Throughout his schooling in Saint Petersburg he studied piano with Anton Herke, developing considerable skill as a performer and improviser. He entered the Imperial Guard Cadets School in 1852 and the Preobrazhensky Regiment of Guards in 1856. During the winter of 1856-57 he attended Aleksandr Dargomyzhky's musicales, where he met Cesar Cui and Mily Balakirev. At the age of 19, an ardent idealist, Mussorgsky resigned his commission for a life of "meaningful endeavor"--music. (later, he worked for some years in the civil service.) By the early 1860s, the group of composers known as The FIVE--Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Aleksandr Borodin, and Nikolai Rimsky--Korsakov--had committed themselves to a nationalist Russian music.
Mussorgsky's commitment emerged primarily in opera. Concern for musical realism and sensitivity to broad social and moral issues appeared vividly in his songs of the 1860s--"The Seminarian," "The Outcast," and "The Orphan Girl"--but these elements gained cumulative power in his operas. In 1863-66 he set about adapting Gustave Flaubert's Salammbo, then turned to Nikolai Gogol's The Marriage, but completed neither. He started Boris Godunov in 1868. A first version was completed in 1869, but it was rejected by the Imperial Theaters because of its radical break with operatic convention. Mussorgsky remodeled the score in 1871-72. This definitive version was published in vocal score just before the opera's premiere in 1874. Mussorgsky was already writing Khovanshchina, another historical opera, and soon started the lighthearted Fair at Sorochinsk. (Rimsky-Korsakov completed Khovanshchina, along with editing and revising other works, including Boris; Cui completed Fair.) The 1870s also produced the song cycles Sunless and Songs and Dances of Death, the tone poem A Night on Bald Mountain, and the piano cycle Pictures from an Exhibition. Alcoholism wrecked his health, and he died in Saint Petersburg.
Mussorgsky's music is distinctly Russian, yet it rarely relies directly on folk-song quotation. Instead, characteristic elements from folk music are abstracted to synthesize an original style of melody based on formulaic figures, harmony derived from folk heterophony, and rhythm founded on the irregular patterns of certain folk genres. His concern for precise communication of personality and emotion led to a new type of vocal parlando that succeeds in reproducing the essence of Russian speech in the mouths of his operatic characters.

Malcolm Hamrick Brown

Year / Artwork Title Importance Medium
1858 Scherzo in B flat major 4.00 stars CD

Toronto Symphony Orchestra cond. Jukka-Pekka Saraste

1868-1872 Kinderstube 3.50 stars LP
Sung in German

Kari Loevaas - Soprano
Erik Werba - Piano

1872 Khovantchina - Introduction 4.00 stars LP
Instrumentation by Rimsky Korsakov

Orchestre de la Societe des Concerts du Consevatoire cond. Andre Cluytens

1872 Khovantchina - Prelude 4.00 stars CD
Instrumentation by Rimsky Korsakov

Toronto Symphony Orchestra cond. Jukka-Pekka Saraste

1872 The Capture of Kars (Solemn March) 4.00 stars CD
Original Version

Toronto Symphony Orchestra cond. Jukka-Pekka Saraste

1874 Pictures at an Exhibition 4.50 stars LP
Siegfried Palm Comments:
Piano Version

Vladimir Ashkenazy - Piano

Orchestrated version see Maurice Ravel

1874 Pictures at an Exhibition 3.50 stars CD
Orchestration by Serge Gortschakov and Leo Funtek

Toronto Symphony Orchestra cond. Jukka-Pekka Saraste

1874 Pictures at an Exhibition 3.50 stars BD-R
Orchestration by Maurice Ravel and Leonard Slatkin

Orchestre national de Lyon cond. Leonard Slatkin

Recorded from MEZZO TV

1874 Pictures at an Exhibition 3.50 stars CD
Arrangement for Cello and Piano

Zvi Harrell -Cello
Maria Bondarenko

1875-1877 Lieder und Taenze des Todes 3.50 stars LP
Original Version
(Later orchestrated by Shostakovitch)

Galina Wischnewskaja - Soprano
Mstislav Rostropovich - Piano

1877 Night on the Bald Mountain 4.00 stars CD
Orchestration by Rinsky Korsakov

Toronto Symphony Orchestra cond. Jukka-Pekka Saraste

1872-1880 Khovantchina - Opera 4.00 stars DVD

Act I. Red Square in Moscow

Shaklovity, a spy for the czar, warns the government of a coup attempt by the Khovansky brothers, Ivan and his son, Andrei. The guards welcome their leader, Prince Ivan. It is our duty, Ivan explains, to protect the czar. Prince Andrei loves a young German girl, Emma. Their talk is interrupted by Martha, an old believer, who reminds Andrei of his vows to her. Andrei draws his knife on his men to bring Emma to him. Emma is saved by intervention of Dositheus, head of the old believers.

Act II. The Summer Residence of Prince Galitsin

Prince Galitsin reads a letter from the princess regent. He realizes he must tread carefully to maintain control of the government. Martha is Galitsin's fortune teller. When she predicts disgrace and exile, the prince orders her drowned. Ivan objects to Galitsin's tyrannical ways. Dositheus also intervenes, berating Galitsin for ignoring the old customs. Shaklovity brings orders for the arrest of the Khovansky princes.

Act III. The Guards Quarters on the Outskirts of Moscow

The old believers hope their faith will triumph, Martha sings of her betrayal. The old believer Susanna hears her song and denounces her love as sinful. Martha confesses to Dositheus who consoles her. The guards awake after a late night of drinking. The scrivener breathlessly announces that the czar's troopers are pillaging the city. The guards beg Prince Ivan to lead them to civil war, but he refuses.

Act IV. In Khovansky's Estate and the Square in Moscow
Scene 1. A Richly Furnished Dining Hall in Prince Ivan Khovansky's Estate
The chambermaids entertain Prince Ivan with a song. Varsonofiev brings a message from Galitsin to beware: Danger is near. Ivan is not convinced. Prince Ivan is summoned by the regent, but is stabbed before he can go.
Scene 2. The Square in Front of the Church of Vassily Blajeny, Moscow
A procession of guards leads Prince Galitsin off to exile. He receives word from Martha that the council has decreed death to the old believers. When Martha tells Andrei of his father's murder, the young prince does not believe her. He asks where Emma has gone and threatens Martha. Seeing the guards being let out to be executed for treason, Ivan begs Martha to save him. The guards are reprieved by order of the czar.

Act V. A Hermitage in the Woods

Dositheus prays looking forward to the glory of martyrdom. Hearing the approach of the guards, the old believers prepare for death and prepare a pyre. Andrei begs Martha to help him escape, but they are already surrounded. To the horror of the guards, the old believers throw themselves into the flaming pyre, to the horror of the guards

The final chorus was composed by Stravinsky.

Doris Soffel - Mezzo Soprano
Anatoly Kotcherga - Bass
Valeri Alexejev - Baritone
John Daszak - Tenor
Klaus Vogt - Tenor
Paata Burchuladze - Bass

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper
Bayerische Staatsorchester cond. Kent Nagano